Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


Not Enough Time – Limited Resources…March 2003

The other day, I was talking to an attorney friend. He showed me how dramatically the PC, in combination with the Internet, has changed his way of working in recent years. He has been an attorney for over fifteen years and for him the last two to three years have been the culmination of a changeover that started about ten years ago. Basically, he is now doing all of his extensive reference searches from his laptop computer. No more trips to the legal library. No more ordering of printed documents. No more semi-random searches that result in only a few bits of useful information. Patents are now located by searching on key words. The ones of interest can be instantly downloaded. And within each patent, once again, a search by key words (or even parts of words) will often quickly locate the most interesting information.

Haystack Rock

In depositions and court proceedings, the shorthand symbols being taken by the court reporter are now instantly translated into standard text and shared with every participant via a connection to his or her laptop computer. These too can be searched using key words or phrases. And although more paper than ever is being generated, the methodology for finding and retrieving information has dramatically improved the speed and thoroughness with which these documents can be generated and referenced. And it should not surprise us that attorneys are now also doing much of their written communicating by e-mail rather than by courier or conventional mail – the methods of the recent past.

While perhaps not as dramatic, in the engineering community, we too have found ways to improve our effectiveness through the Internet. Today, when we need an electronic component, a new monitor, or perhaps a service provider, most of us go to our computers and start the search there. We may still have a shelf full of catalogs from our favorite vendors, but for comparison of current prices or to check on immediate availability, the Internet has become the best way to do it. For example, yesterday I needed a replacement power transistor of higher current gain than typical. I knew it would not be listed in the electronic parts catalogs that I have on hand. And I knew for sure that it would not be on the shelf at my nearest electronics shop. So off I went on my search, using my computer and the Internet. Within a few minutes I had located a vendor that I had never heard of before on Long Island (near New York) that specializes in fabricating replacements for obsolete transistors. Without the power of the Internet, how else would I have stumbled onto this find? I suppose if I had made enough phone calls, talked to enough people, and looked in enough industry directories, I might have arrived at the same place. But based on similar past experiences, I’m not so sure that I would have found this source – and certainly not as quickly.

Over the years in these columns, I have tried to balance some of the more extreme hype about the Internet with a more conservative approach. I have suggested that, while there are going to be some important benefits, the Internet won’t replace everything that we currently do -- such as shopping in regular stores, reading books and magazines, or being entertained by movies, plays, and live concerts. I have also suggested that whenever we add a new activity something else must be given up – a "something" that we previously did to fill up our twenty-four hour days. For example, my attorney friend has dramatically reduced his search time at legal libraries and the time he previously spent reading patents looking for those few gems of information. He has replaced that saved time by doing the searches on-line and by compiling far more data, doing it faster, and with more relevance to the matters at hand. While he may still spend as many hours as before in preparation for a trial, his preparation is more thorough and the reference data is more complete. In my own case, I am able to accomplish more work because I can find the needed parts more quickly and I can comparison shop for the best combination of price and delivery. And because of that, I now do not need to spend as much time looking through trade magazines to keep myself informed on which companies provide which products, or bother with sending in "bingo cards" to gather general product information.

All this is turning out to be both a "good news" and a "bad news" scenario. The good news I have already shared with you in the paragraphs above. The potentially bad news is that this is beginning to have a major and perhaps even devastating effect on industry trade publications. Have you noticed the page counts recently for the trade magazines you have been getting by simply filling out a subscription request card each year? Some of them are getting mighty thin. Yet others have stopped publishing altogether or have merged with sister publications. These magazines can survive only if companies buy advertising space. When the advertising purchases decrease, the page count must go down and the editorial content must be reduced proportionately. Pretty soon it is no longer viable to pay for the printing and mailing of these ever smaller issues and the publications cease to exist.

You and I have only twenty-four hours in each day and only seven days in each week. If we spend increasing amounts of our time on our computers and on the Internet, we are perhaps spending less of it in general reading about our industry. Businesses are beginning to recognize this and are facing some difficult choices. With their limited personnel resources and tight budgets what should they do? Once it becomes obvious that their sales are coming from those of us who find them via the Internet, then the effort must be put there to have the very best looking sites, the most complete and easy to access catalogs, and the most up to date product information. There may not be anything left over for doing the more generic ads in trade publications. And if a sufficient number of companies make this decision, print versions of trade publications will not be able to survive.

Some have blamed the drop in advertising revenue on the weak economy. And indeed the economy should be expected to have some effect. On the other hand, it may simply be the stimulant by which this conversion process is accelerated. It seems to me that the fundamental forces driving this change are there, and mostly independent of the economy. Thus, the economy may only have a second-order effect.

In the coming years, we can expect the Internet to affect some parts of our lives more than others. For many of our activities there may not be much impact. For example, there will be no significant convergence of the Internet and television. People will continue to gather in shopping malls, movie theaters, parks, sports stadiums, and other public places. Paper based information will continue to grow in weight and volume. Electronic communications will bring us ever more location independence. If the politicians don’t mess up, for most of us the world will change in a reasonably predictable and orderly way.

The few exceptions will be the situations such as the ones discussed in this column. I really do believe that we are in the middle of a revolution in how technical product information is delivered and accessed. The entire planet earth is becoming an instantly accessible database. Within the short span of the next five years we are going to see how all this evolves – who benefits the most and who the survivors are. In the competitive arena of industry trade publications, there may be very few who make it through this transition. The PC/Internet lion is likely to devour most of them.

As always, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this topic or any others on which you may wish to comment. For example, how are you doing your information searches currently? With all the other demands on your available time, do you have any time left for reading trade publications? Have you also noticed the shrinking size of these publications? What do you think is in the future for your favorite trade magazine(s)? You may contact me directly from this site or by sending an e-mail to Email, by telephone at 425-557-8850, or by FAX at 425-557-8983. If you wish to send a more traditional letter, then you will have to search for my address located somewhere on this site.